From Denver Post By Joanne Ditmer 02/22/2015
One of the surest ways to earn eternal mistrust in Denver is to mess with our parks. Mayor Michael Hancock found that out in 2012 when he took 10 acres of the Hentzell Park Natural Area in Southeast Denver and gave it to Denver Public Schools to build an elementary school — on a flood plain. The parks advisory board had voted 11-6 against the giveaway. Two mayoral appointees on the board who were among those voting “nay” were replaced by the next meeting. In short order, the city found a way to transfer the land.
Parks got nothing in return, only a lawsuit filed by citizens. But from then on, the department and mayor have been viewed with suspicion, and subjected to complaints about lack of transparency. What else is in the works that we’re not being told?
Our urban parks are essential grace notes to the Queen City of the Plains. Early settlers in 1859 planned parks from the beginning, and we have 240 parks of almost 6,000 acres enriching our neighborhoods. Another 18 mountain parks offer 14,000 acres.
Denver is rated seventh in the nation for the quality of its park system by the Trust for Public Land, a respected national non-profit advocate that helps plan and support parks. But as our land mass and population grows, we must make sure that our park properties do, too. Denver has 6 percent of its land mass in parks; Colorado Springs has 14 percent.
The explosion of massive buildings in Cherry Creek, downtown, and all over the city, and the waves of newcomers make us wary of politicians who see parks as real estate, not as irreplaceable legacies.
Wellington Webb, Denver’s mayor from 1991 to 2003, knew parks were significant city assets, and added 2,350 acres on 15 sites during his tenure. It seems appropriate for a choice park parcel someday to be named in Webb’s honor.
A recent Denver Post article suggested that Burns Park, a 13-acre triangle of open land at Colorado Boulevard and Alameda Avenue, wasn’t earning its keep. It has a half dozen contemporary sculptures, circa 1960s, dozens of geese, an abundance of sunshine, and few human visitors. Some say it should be redesigned to attract people or be sold for development. But with an average of 38,636 vehicles passing by daily, motorists deserve the visual solace of the park. Burns is an oasis of natural open space in a commercial jungle.
Some say the “empty” space behind the Denver Center for the Performing Arts should get a building as well. That’s ignoring that the sweep of lawn is a rare visual grace note for occupants of the 59,738 vehicles passing daily.
The Hentzell parcel was taken supposedly because it was not an “officially” designated park, and thus not protected by Denver’s city charter, which stipulates that no land acquired by the city after Dec. 31, 1955, shall be deemed a “park” unless specifically designated by city ordinance. Perhaps more importantly, the charter says city parks may not be sold or given away without a vote of the people. Since 1936, the city had watered, planned and cared for Hentzell — with tax dollars — but it wasn’t a park?
Only 68 percent of Denver parks were “officially designated” in 2012. The department has raised the count to 83 percent, and plans to have all eligible parks officially designated this year. Very quietly, the Parks Department has begun holding some meetings with park neighbors and neighborhood organizations. Working together on important decisions is much more productive than going into battle.
And, after all, mayors come and go.